Berlin: In Which I Venture North

22 09 2011

Just as August approaches its close, a golden invitation wings its characteristically unexpected way into my life. Dear friend Pennie, with whom I spent many months adventuring in Bangkok over a year ago, has plans to attend a global education conference based in Berlin. Might I like to come see the city?

It was back in wintry January that the idea of Berlin as a sweet summer destination entered my pretty lil’ head; however, as they are wont to do, far-in-advance plans became beautifully sidetracked by spring surprises. The Pennie-prompting is all the push I need to book my flights.

My experience thus far with European capitals: Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, and my beloved Madrid. Berlin looks nothing like any of these. Particularly in comparison to the Spanish center, the city feels spacious, each and every path including a wide bike lane. There are intersections where bicycles dominate, and pedestrians and cars alike show enormous respect for the sanctity of the reserved space. The public transportation system here is excellent, sublime in its clockwork connections between trams, buses, and both above- and below-ground metro, but there is an enormous sense of freedom in mobility by bike, one which I most notably experience in a 3:00 AM wild ride back to an awaiting bed.

The bikes are ubiquitous, and often beautifully personalized.

Eyes open, the city is replete with treasure.

Berlin is an undeniable street art mecca; the immediate impression that every available surface has been coated in color and form is soon corrected when it appears to double 24 hours later. There are some seriously stunning pieces here, several impressive in sheer several-story size, others innovative in elaborate design and execution. There is plenty of paint, but also loads of paste-ups and chip art (wherein an image is constructed in negative, painstakingly chipping flecks away from whatever coats a surface); an informal walking tour I take informs that many pieces are done by artists who specifically pass through the city aiming to leave their signature style on its streets.

Obviously, expression isn’t limited to spray painted wall bombings; wallpapered posters everywhere proclaim a plethora of exhibitions inhabiting the most unassuming corners of city blocks. I pass through one taking up residence in what appears to be a dilapidated tenement of some variety, advertised as Die Revolution Im Dienste Der Poesie (Revolution in the Name of Poetry). The mixed-media collection revolves around the theme in its title, coupled with a load of historical context presented in a “newspaper” available at the door. Of course, being in German, this escapes me entirely, and I’m contented checking out the details of a revolutionist’s take on a still life.

Infamous five-story art squat Tacheles raises queries regarding creative legitimacy, as it represents at once the city’s libertine expression of youth and a prime piece of real estate. The place is visually resplendent in its freewheeling glory (naturally I’m informed that “it was better five years ago”) and acrid in its stairwell scent; seems the big bad government has recently shut off the water in a push to convert the space to something more commercially suited for the downtown zoning.

It’s probably evident in my tongue-in-cheek wording: I find the whole David-and-Goliath storytelling to be rather blown out of proportion. I too would like to see official support for free community art displays, but my gut tells me Tacheles continues to be successful because of its mythology.  The area doesn’t need another touristy pub there whatsoever, but the auctioning of the place would certainly turn a pretty penny – which ideally could be funneled into social programs. Berlin’s identity appears to be ever in flux, but I have no doubt that the displaced creative energy would pack its tools and pop up elsewhere.

This is only one tourist’s opinion. What’s your take?





Fiestas del Norte: Vitoria

30 08 2011

Friend Iñaki invites us to his hometown of Vitoria for what’s known as el chupinazo, the first day of its week-long citywide fiesta. We are to cart a bottle each of bottom-of-the-barrel cava, along with standard kalimotxo provisions. Upon arrival to the Basque capital, we stash our backpacks and are ready to bolt out the door, bottles of bubbly in tow, when Iñaki stops us, incredulous. “¿De veras vais vestidos así?” What, in jeans and a t-shirt? Iñaki laughs, rummages through his drawers, and presents us with tacky sports shorts coupled with electric lime green t-shirts.

We show up to a local buddy’s house in high style; the rest of the group is sporting similar duds and furiously smoking cigarettes. Through the tobacco haze hanging in the loft apartment, I’m proffered tequila. “Tenemos prisa,” they tell me, “Ya casi son las seis.” Portable kalimotxo is splashed together in oversize plastic cups, and we take to the street, where absolutely everyone is heading in the same direction. A dull roar grows fur and fangs as we approach one of Vitoria’s central plazas.

Immediately we lose track of our new batch of Vitorian friends, but manage to hold on tight to Iñaki – quite literally, by his shirt sleeve. The crowd throbs in intoxicated anticipation, mouths already stained the royal purple of Don Simon. We claw our way through to where Iñaki thinks we’ll have a good view of the action, and we  form a three person shell around the nucleus of precious cava bottles. The shot of tequila is making its merry way through our systems, but even more infectious is the frenzied determination of the crowd to party, and party hard. Shortly we’re wildly whooping with the rest, and at the stroke of six the climactic sequence begins: a figure dressed in traditional Basque garb is hoisted to the top of the plaza’s clock tower, and the mass of humanity breaks out in song:

¡Ceeeeeledón ha hecho una casa nueva!
¡Ceeeeeledón con ventana y balcón!

Iñaki’s yelled explanation reveals that the lofted figure is the Celedón in question, that he’s been opening the fiestas of Vitoria for as long as anyone can remember, and that apparently he once built for himself a new house (with both window and balcony, even).

Cava explodes gleefully across the sea of ecstatic revelers, and it takes all of five seconds for everyone to be utterly drenched in effervescent booze. We violently agitate the bottles before popping the cork, proceeding to douse everyone within spraying radius. Undeterred by the alcoholic downpour, plenty of the crowd lights up fat cigars, and all continue warbling the ode to Celedón’s swank new pad.

Once the cava runs out, the festivities have truly begun, and the crowd disperses down the spiderweb of streets accordingly. As we tenaciously stumble towards our chosen meeting spot for the rest of our group, we beg water from observers residing in the top floors of the apartments lining the streets. “¡No seas rata! ¡Agua es barata!” They’re too happy to oblige, and cleansing redemption comes careening down in buckets.

We reunite with the rest of the band of heroes and seek merriment, which is to be found absolutely everywhere. Bars erect stalls in the streets vending enormous cups of kalimotxo and assortments of bocatas. Revelry spreads itself to each and every possible cobbled corner, marching in screeching brass bands parading from calle to calle, flowing off tongues to form excited proclamations amongst excitable new friends. The positive energy is palpable and immersive; it sucks you in, and it doesn’t stop, not for days – we end up staying an unexpected two more nights.





El Bosque Pintado de Oma

14 08 2011

All credit to my excellent friend Alexandra Waters: months earlier, upon being informed of my summertime Pais Vasco plans, she had gushed to me about a highly unusual forest somewhere near Guernika that she had chanced to visit. Fast-forward to July, and Aldo’s handing me a tourist catalogue of the area; when I come across the photo I immediately recognize what it is I’m seeing.

Traveler’s destiny? I thought the same back in December, when Hondarribia was a strange name stumbling over the tip of my tourist tongue, when the long-awaited wild horses showed their fuzzy manes atop the most unexpected mountain. We can call it coincidence, if you prefer your grandiose proclamations fate free. A series of damn fine coincidence.

We make the trek to El Bosque Pintado de Oma on a hazy Saturday afternoon. Drizzle threatens but never materializes. It’s a several kilometer hike into the forest in order to find the famed painted trees, including multiple serious ups and downs, and a first view of white swaths of paint across trunks is uncompensatingly unimpressive. However, the forest floor is dotted with stone markers, complete with arrows indicating the direction in which one is meant to look – and from these particular points, what appears to otherwise be colorful chaos coagulates into magic patterns. Stripes zig and zag their way across the forest, alternatively forming both curved and linear designs. We see eruptions of flames, motorcycles, and a sudden menacing crowd that appears to have it out for the viewer.

Curiously, the eerie sensation of being observed appears to be somewhat of an artist’s theme; an enormous section of trees is dedicated to ever-alert eyeballs of every size and color.

Later this night, we mention to a few local friends where we’ve been all day, and are informed that the artist is not too highly regarded ’round these parts – seems his outspoken politics err on the side of facha, which certainly doesn’t go over big in el Pais Vasco. I do vaguely remember Alexandra mentioning something about politically-motivated vandalism of the painted trees. It certainly raises questions that are intriguing, if not too original: can art be “good” if its creator is “bad”? To what extent are we obligated to consider artistic merit in the light of the artist’s own proclivities? Those of you familiar with my beleaguered thesis will know my response already, but by no means do I consider the matter closed – what do you think?





Bidegorri de Oiartzun

14 08 2011

Sunny afternoon stroll along the Bidegorri of Oiartzun.

Old tunnels left by old mines.

Resonant statue atop a mountain’s ledge.

Summoning the handflute gods.

CLOK-clok-clok-clok-clok





Sardinade à Hendaye, France

24 07 2011

” — hold on, let me check. Hey, do you want to go eat sardines in France tonight?”

Do I.

Summer means sardines in just-across-the-French-border Hendaye. It’s still Basque Country, but Frenchified; architecture sprouts Parisian flourishes, pastisseries seem infinitely more exotically attractive than their pasteleria counterparts, and syllables suddenly begin to slide languidly through nostrils.

Even I end up busting out French 101 remnants: “Bonjour, catre, merci!” Only one selection on the menu, and we want four of them.

Ten chargrilled sardines, freshly fished from the ocean just beyond the above-pictured Bay of Chingoudy. These are oversize puppies, designed to be nibbled by hand in the style of an ear of corn, delicately nursing each shred of fish flesh from out the spine. Everyone ends up eating a few dainty bones; follow them with a swig of Rioja and it doesn’t matter. The cheese is local, nutty and rich, and the Basque pastry at the end is pure butter.

And it’s sunset on the coast of France. Le sigh.